Philip Pullman’s latest beguiling novel,“The Book of Dust, Volume One, La Belle Sauvage,” marks Pullman’s return to the strange, eerie, beautiful world of Lyra Belacqua. Readers all over the world (OUR world) who loved the previous Lyra trilogy, His Dark Materials, will surely be profoundly moved and satisfied by this volume — because the novel is, indeed, profoundly moving and satisfying.
“La Belle Sauvage” is essentially a prequel to “The Golden Compass.” Lyra is an infant. Her protectors at first are the nuns at the Priory of St. Rosamund, but they are soon replaced as caregivers by eleven-year -old Malcolm Polstead and a sixteen-year-old ‘“girl called Alice.” Both work at the inn owned by Malcolm’s parents. The two young protagonists intensely dislike each other at first, primarily because Alice is a sour-faced, sullen, harsh person whereas Malcolm is smart, sweet and outgoing. But as the novel progresses, their responsibility to and for Lyra, and the dramatic dangers they face together, bring them continually closer to a loving and extraordinarily caring relationship.
The overarching concern of most of the novel’s important characters is the quest for possession of the infant Lyra. There are heroes and villains aplenty, all drawn by Pullman with such vitality, intensity, and fascinating detail that we cannot help but love those heroes and despise those villains.
Lyra’s world here, that familiar parallel world to our own, again reveals Pullman’s unique ability to create characters and situations with whom and which we can identify intellectually and especially emotionally. The subtle differences between Lyra’s world and ours are so deftly delineated that we inevitably begin to feel deep sympathy and empathy not only for the characters but also for their intimately connected consciences and souls — their daemons, those brilliant Pullman animal creations who always reflect the deep-down and sometimes hidden thoughts and feelings of the characters to whom they “belong.”
As Malcolm and Alice struggle through the ravages of other-worldly storms, sly and cruel villains, mystical and mysterious beings, and devilish conditions in general, all for the purpose of returning Lyra to her father, Lord Asriel, we are struck by the subtle evocations of myths, literary memes, and classic traditions of storytelling with which we are all familiar: faeries, witches, demigods, curses, magic, and even Huck Finn, as the two intrepid children/travelers, Pullman’s own version of Huck and Jim, make their way in a special canoe through the treacherous river all the way to their destination, the restoration of Lyra to her real home and father.
“La Belle Sauvage,” then, becomes another shining example of the classic picaresque novel, a more-than-worthy successor to the likes and lore of Quixote, Candide, Tom Jones, Holden Caulfield, and, of course, Huckleberry Finn. And the best news is that two more of these wonder-filled visits to Lyra’s world will shortly grace our bookshelves and our hearts. (JK)
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Knopf, the publisher, for review purposes.